This is the second in a three part series on a proposal by Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout.
To help restore the Upper Wood River’s overall health and population of native fishes, Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout has proposed an experimental 5 year plan which includes suspending the State’s stocking of hatchery-raised, non-native fish and establishing the watershed as catch and release with only artificial lures bearing single, barbless hooks. The Department of Environmental Management is aware of the proposal but feels, for now, there is insufficient data or cause to identify a population or habitat crisis or need to alter current regulations. A majority of those who attended state fishing regulation hearings have opposed the plan while Trout Unlimited has publicly stated its opposition to stocking non-native fish over wild populations. In the background is a plethora of scientific data regarding the potentially deleterious effects of stocking invasive species, a fear of institutional inertia slowing state government and how our love for fishing can obscure what PRIBT says are clear signs of population and riverine habitat failure.
Scientifically known as Salvelinus fontinalis, brook trout are part of the char family whose name translates into “living in springs”. Brookies, found mainly in cool headwaters, streams or some deeper lakes, are prized for their magnificent dark skin backing a palette of colors, are widely considered sentinels of environmental changes because of their specific optimal conditions and can be found in more than 130 waterbodies throughout the state.
Stocking over wild populations is of primary concern to the PRIBT. DEM stocks brookies as well as brown trout (Salmo trutta), an invasive species first introduced from Germany to Pere Marquete River in Michigan in 1883 by the U.S. Fish Commission and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which are native to North America and stocked throughout the country. According to a July 2015 paper by the International Journal of Molecular Science, the “introduction of non-native genes in wild populations is widely recognized as a major threat for both genetic variability and biodiversity, and fish are not exceptions.” A 2013 peer-reviewed paper in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management “found that repeated stocking of brown trout…over native brook trout populations had detrimental effects on the wild brook trout.” This study also concluded that “intensive annual stocking brown trout could eliminate resident brook trout in less than a decade.”
Local Trout Unlimited chapter 225 has assisted the State with float stocking non-native brown and rainbow trout in the Upper Wood,despite their parent organization’s opposition. TU states,“With regard to stocking over native trout populations, the Salmonid Policy recommends that TU oppose stocking in water containing healthy self-sustaining populations of salmonids, more specifically the Policy advises TU to protect native populations by working to eliminate non-native stocking where it could adversely affect native salmonid populations.” This message comes from a 150,000 member-strong non profit who, as far back as 1962, successfully pressured the State of Michigan to end its “put and take” trout stocking, championing the invaluable merits of a wild fishery.
Chapter 225 took a vote then acted on two thoughts. The first was that the advisory was just that and therefore subject to some interpretation, despite a clear message of “ensuring that TU Chapters and Councils are not participating in or supporting such stocking activities in furtherance of TU’s mission to protect and restore wild and native trout”. The second was that there is no real scientific proof of “native” brookies in the river. They commissioned a Habitat Assessment Group for three years to, “make a clear decision on the applicability of the policy” but really it served to collect important environmental data on the river while avoiding the real issue: should a chapter of Trout Unlimited ignore a national policy or directive or advisory whose main mission is to “To conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds” in order to continue stocking trophy non-native fish in their backyard river? Douglas Thompson, in his book, Quest for the Golden Trout, wrote with dismay of hatchery fish surviving on timer-driven pellets which retards their natural foraging instincts. He noted that, “Research shows that newly released fish adopt high-risk and energetically costly approaches to feeding” which translates into big fish racing to eat whatever floats by, so they can “consume more food than wary fish that demonstrate perhaps a bit more cynicism and mistrust”, traits prized by true trout fishermen. Stocking hatchery fish, such great consumers of available foods, has an obvious and direct effect on the survival of the wily wild brook trout.
Chapter President Ron Marafioti feels,“the location is wrong, the approach is wrong” which, in fairness, is a reflection of what has become of the watershed: it’s a park full of 2 year old trout ready to jump but what’s missing from that argument is precisely what makes PRIBT’s heart beat: the challenge, art and peace, the satisfaction of outsmarting one of Nature’s finest creations, exactly, as Chris Wood told me, “where God placed these fish”. Not a fattened programmed brown on the verge of starvation, but a sweet dark brookie, speckled with sunlight, maybe as small as your palm is wide, in the wild. Paul Pezza, who landed his first trout 59 years ago, wrote, “I am of the belief that the Wood River can produce a sustainable population of brook trout if we leave the place alone”.
Marafioti also said, “We don’t know if we have native trout on that stretch of the river”. When considering the PRIBT proposal, the “native” versus “wild” argument is rubbish. TU’s Chris Wood told me that with regard to this management concept, “TU sees no difference between native and wild. The issue ultimately is not wild or native, it’s population protection.” Paul Pezza said, “Our position is that all stream-born brook trout in RI are of our native species, are wild, and are deserving of our efforts to conserve what is left of them and restore when possible.” Bingo.
Next week we will explore more on DEM’s position, the difficulties of change and my goal to bring this proposal to the table.